POEM: Me, African


My body is smooth and my skin shines like a sculpture made from ebony wood
He made me in his divine picture
He placed me in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya…
I am black, beautiful, rare and expensive
He placed me in the heart of central basin of the Congo
I’m stiff and magic
He placed me in the Kalahari and Sahara Deserts
I am a wonder and unapologetic
He placed me at the feet of Mount Kilimanjaro
I’m catchy to the eyes of tourists
He hides me in the Horn of Africa
makes me walk from the gulf of Guinea to the Cape of Good Hope
Me, African

Africa’s stolen wealth


The Looting Machine provides indispensable insights into why Africa’s astonishing oil and mineral wealth fails to translate into the enrichment of its people — and only benefits a small coterie of rulers, as well as middlemen and foreign companies. It exposes how weak governance allows political elites to act with impunity.

Tom Burgis, who was previously based in Johannesburg and Lagos for the Financial Times (and today is its investigations correspondent in London) has certainly done his homework – showing courage and tenacity as he takes readers across the continent — from Angola to Mali and Nigeria, to Congo, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Colourful details, stats and interviews (with tycoons, with ordinary folk, with politicians and politicians-turned-businessmen) sprinkle this eloquent and utterly engrossing read.

Burgis shines a piercing light on the murky world of the “shadow state”, where individuals and private companies with connections to politicians do deals — either with the world’s major resource companies or go-betweens that sell their rights at an eyewatering profit.

He shows that, in many cases, bountiful resources are a curse, not a boon, hampering progress (there is evidence to suggest that the economies of resource-rich African countries actually grow more slowly than those that have less).

Some of the organisations  that appear in this book are well-known — petro-giants like Shell, or the French nuclear titan Areva (which, incidentally pays Niger a pittance for the uranium it carves out of the country’s earth). Then there are the colourful characters you might have heard of — such as diamond dealer Dan Gertler. But it is unlikely you’ve encountered the likes of the mysterious 88 Queensway Group. A significant chunk of the book is devoted to untangling the operations of this assortment of private companies. Thanks in large part to its connections to powerful Chinese politicians, it has succeeded in inking resource deals in a whole host of African countries (starting in Angola). The group specialises in providing quick cash to regimes (some of them bloodthirsty; all of them corrupt) who need of it urgently — in return for bargain-priced mineral concessions.

(Incidentally, the man at the centre of Queensway, Sam Pa – who appears throughout the book – was arrested in China last year not long after the book’s publication, a sign of how quickly political fortunes can change in the world’s second largest economy.)

The Looting Machine is a vital contribution towards understanding Africa’s politics, its economies and the often toxic intermingling of the two. If we want to know what’s holding the continent back, what is stymieing its potential: here it is. If we want to understand what really fuels supposedly ethnic or religious motivated conflict, whether in the eastern Congo or Nigeria, here it is. The great, ugly tussle for wealth, at the expense of the ordinary.

Will the plundering stop? Will the resource curse become a gift? Although Burgis does not attempt to answer that, it does not seem like things are unlikely to change dramatically anytime soon. Unless there are dramatic changes to the way business is being done, for the next while at least, Africa’s rich will carry on getting rich. Most of its poor will remain poor.

And all of us — thanks to the precious metals in our phones and the petrol in our cars and the sparkling gems on our fingers— are too blame.

The Looting Machine is published by William Collins.

POEM: House Party in Brooklyn


Somewhere in Brooklyn,
there was a party, cool party.
We danced, drank and paid
homage to the earth.
Different travellers converged,
with different stories to share…
And we partied all night.
Then Africa revealed its
shaded layers. The American-African,
the Caribbean-African,
the African-African,
to a soundtrack that speaks more
of dispersal than aggregation.
And when the party was over,
we left with our different bits
of Africa. And someone asked:
Isn’t Africa a country?

Rainbow nation rogues and heroes


Ragged Glory is lucid, thoughtful and eloquent: a calm and smoothly digestible account of democratic South Africa’s political stage. Peppered with quotes from interviews Hartley did as a political reporter, the book explores the both the style and substance of post-apartheid South Africa’s leaders. There is Nelson Mandela’s reconciliatory approach and his bid to steady a listing economic ship, which had been battered by years of sanctions and disinvestment, and had a jittery business community eyeing the life-rafts. Hartley looks at Thabo Mbeki’s ascendance, the insanity of his Aids denialism, and his eventual downfall. Then there is Jacob Zuma’s astonishing — rise to power, and the legal tussles (involving accusations of rape and corruption) that has so far been unable to ensnare him.

But Ragged Glory is not just about politicos. Government’s policy formulation (and its spotty implementation) is accessibly decoded too. Hartley introduces us to the alphabet soup of abbreviations that would mark the constantly shifting approach to tackling apartheid’s legacy and growing the economy. First was the ill-fated RDP (the Reconstruction and Development Programme) whose only significant legacy, it seems, is to be the colloquial (and incorrect) adjective applied to low-cost government housing. Mbeki’s Gear (Growth, Employment and Redistribution) came next. It was pro-market and recognised the need for a labour market in which it was easier to hire and fire people— much to the horror of the ANC’s trade union allies who felt increasingly isolated by the imperious Mbeki’s imperious disdain for consensus-building. Gear was also abandoned, in favour of Asgisa (Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative), which emphasised spending on big infrastructure projects to try to curb the country’s stubbornly high unemployment rates. Hartley captures the ever-more vigorous muddying of policy waters as Zuma sought to appease the left wing which had helped propel him into office: in 2009 he created both an economic development ministry (run by a COSATU man, Ebrahim Patel) as well as a national planning commission which would ultimately produce the much-praised but largely unfulfilled NDP (National Development Plan).

While there isn’t much in Ragged Glory that you wouldn’t have known about had you been paying attention (or a frequent reader of one the newspapers Hartley has written for, or helmed) over the last 20 years, Hartley ably puts it all in context, providing sharp analysis and a narrative flow that sweeps you beyond the headlines to a better understanding of the political landscape. There’s not a lumpen cliche in sight; Hartley has a refreshingly crisp, vivid turn-of-phrase — for example: After a cycle in the political washing machine, Gear would have lost its bold colours and emerged as a faded quilt of stitched-together policies.

Hartley isn’t polemical — he marshals the facts to make a quietly scathing indictment of the erosion of the rule of law and “the rising tide of corruption and self-enrichment”. “There is hope for South Africa,” he concludes in the book’s final chapter. But while there is hope, Hartley shows the alarm bells are ringing, too.

Ragged Glory is published by Jonathan Ball and is available from Kalahari.com.